Dhaka, Bangladesh — Rescue ships searched the Bay of Bengal Monday for survivors of a cyclone that slammed walls of water into islands off Bangladesh, killing more than 1,300 people and leaving up to 10,000 missing and feared dead.
Thousands of islanders were believed to have been swept out to sea by 10foot to 15foot tidal waves spawned by the Friday night storm that hit Bangladesh, a nation about the size of Wisconsin that borders India and Burma.
A total of about 4,000 people have been rescued from the sea so far.
The cyclone, packing winds of more than 100 mph, struck a 168milelong estuary dotted with about 1,000 islands and inhabited by some 8.5 million people.
Federal government officials rolled back the confirmed death toll from 1,500 to 1,311 Monday, although local press reports said 3,450 people had been buried on the islands during the past two days and local government officials reported that as many as 20,000 people were killed in the storm.
In Geneva, Switzerland, the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimated at least 3,000 people died in the storm and said unconfirmed reports indicated as many as 40,000 may have been killed.
The government gave no reason for revising the official death toll downward, but local officials said it appeared authorities feared a high death toll would cast doubt on the military government’s ability to provide adequate storm warnings.
A storm-warning center connected to the NASA space agency and built to avert a repeat of a 1970 cyclone that claimed 500,000 lives was in operation and officials said Monday the Bangladesh mainland was spared worse casualties this time because it got a timely warning.
Although the information prevented deaths on the mainland, thousands living on the islands could not escape the tidal waves, a Bangladesh official said.
Col. Abu Nayeen of the secretariat of martial law administration, which is overseeing disaster relief, said another 8,000 to 10,000 residents of the hard hit island of Urichar were washed away and possibly killed.
Nayeen said an estimated 2.5 million people were affected by the storm and that 15,794 homes were destroyed and 122,826 others were partially damaged.
Dhaka received its first warning of a depression building off the coast at 2 p.m. Thursday and issued a warning to the public and a day later the storm was spotted in the bay about 250 miles south of the Bangladesh coast and another warning was issued to the public, he said.
The cyclone hit the first few islands at 11:30 p.m. Friday and continued until 5 a.m. Saturday.
“Damage in terms of money and human tragedy will be colossal,” an official statement said.
A Bangladesh official said difficulties in accounting for some 3,000 migrant workers on the islands for the annual rice harvest may make it impossible to ever determine the exact number of dead.
“The storm reached 140 miles per hour and the tidal surge was 12 feet high,” Red Cross spokesman Richard Bergstrom said, “Our people there says the entire populations of Sandwip, a 20milelong island in the Bay of Bengal, plus the islands of Pirbaksh and Pukiarchaga have been swept away.”
Shebudtin Nafa, 32, a reporter for the Bangladesh Times who toured the islands of Sandwip and Urichar, said, “It looked like a nuclear holocaust. Everything is washed away.”
Relief officials said at least 5,000 people were injured in the storm and as many as 25,000 head of cattle a prized possession in the impoverished nation of 90 million people were washed away.
President Hussein Muhammad Ershad declared Tuesday a national day of mourning.
As the weather cleared Monday, ships began plucking survivors out of the Bay of Bengal. Three navy vessels rescued about 300 people who had spent more than 12 hours floating in the cold water.
Two Singapore bound commercial ships picked up 22 people who had been swept 80 miles out to sea from their homes on the island of Sandwip, authorities said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Vivian Ascher said the United States is making $25,000 available immediately for Bangladesh relief efforts.
Survivors on the island of Monpura said most of the population, estimated at between 20,000 and 85,000, was feared dead.
On Char Clear Island, authorities could account for only 2,000 of the roughly 10,000 inhabitants.